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Videos taken by mobile phones are whisked out under the noses of the Burmese authorities, eye witness reports are quickly transmitted and broadcast around the world. The long-held promise of the internet to undermine totalitarian régimes is finally being delivered. But how exactly is the material being used, and what is the role of new platforms such as blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia?
The Burmese government has tried hard to cut its people off from the online world. A 2005 study by OpenNetInitiative said that it had “one of the world’s most restrictive regimes of internet control”, with software blocking 84 per cent of sites with sensitive material. But the people still have phones, they have some email, and they have the skills to outwit the authorities by using foreign-based servers. What is more, bloggers are teaching each other the tricks, so the régime will find it increasingly difficult to maintain any real barriers.
The sites I looked at can be divided broadly into two: news and opinion. News is the harder to gather, and here the traditional media organisations are pulling together what they can. Big sites sites such as the BBC, AFP and CNN are providing a solid service, though the benefits of local knowledge and contacts shine through on the specialist Mizzima News site. This is a Delhi-based news agency covering Burma, and has been keeping up a running commentary that shows it has contacts in the right places: “5.30pm: woman protestor injured in police firing”, “5.55pm: Protestors in Rangoon have dispersed for the day”, “6.00pm: Fully armed soldiers are seen forming a straight line and marching at the cross roads of …”.
A news site that may well be useful to Burma-watchers but is otherwise depressing belongs to the government-controlled Myanmar Times. “Tomorrow’s paper today” has the sort of news coverage we would expect from a dictatorship - the main story is “Last session of national convention under way” and the date is July.
Media websites remain at the centre of news provision. It may be that Burmese language blogs (such as the one produced in London by Ko Htike) also have running news, but the English blogs I saw can link only to other news sites. Of the other new-style social networking devices, the one that appears to be most news-driven is, surprisingly, Wikipedia. This encyclopedia is written and edited by its users, and if you look up the entry for “2007 Burmese anti-government protests”, you will find impressive evidence of the service they can provide. In mid-afternoon of Wednesday (September 26), I read a blow-by blow description of what had happened in Rangoon throughout the same day. Clicking the references, I saw that the information was being assembled from media sites, including Mizzima, but the production of instant history in this way is impressive and (I suppose?) useful.
Other new platforms work mainly as opinion formers and reinforcers. Facebook, the social network site most used by adult professionals, allows anyone to set up a group. These can be open or closed, and act as a useful hybrid between website and hub for conversation. “Burma: the Truth” is a group set up by Phil Smith in Illinois, with 2,035 members and a fairly lively discussion board. It is populated mainly by Americans, and has many links to disturbing videos such as a UK Channel Four documentary on Burma. Members can also post links they want to promote, such as one to a petition on the British prime minister’s site (1,464 signatures here when I checked). Facebook is useful both because of its hybrid role, and also because it is so easy to exploit: anyone can establish a page or group with no technical knowledge at all. I can see it becoming the key gathering point for all kinds of campaign.
One platform that is a bit of a disappointment is the video-sharing site YouTube. I have read several times this week that it is YouTube that will undermine the Burmese regime – an FT article was headed “Junta treads warily in the YouTube era” - and I expected it to be true. Like Facebook, YouTube’s great strength is that it is so easy to use – anyone with a little patience will be able to upload a digital video clip to the site. But if you type “Burma” into YouTube’s search engine, you are presented first with a video of Jim Carrey demanding action, then the Channel Four documentary, then a pop group called Burma. I found a couple of videos of the demonstrations, but most of the clips on Mizzima and elsewhere have not been processed through YouTube.
A problem is that YouTube is a terrific repository of videos, but it is mostly used by people whose minds are are on higher things than Burmese politics. The most viewed videos on Wednesday were an advertisement for the Halo 3 computer game, “FHM Girls 7” and “Gayfight!”. The only politics to make it on to the first page were the fun and games between the presidents of Iran and Columbia University.
Where YouTube does score is in spreading hard-hitting material such as the documentary (I don’t know what Channel Four thinks about the copyright issues here), and also quirky films that suit its audience. I found a link on Mizzima to a YouTube video of General Than Shwe’s daughter which, it said “was originally obained from a private web-log in Rangoon”. The huge diamond necklace and overall glitz could be just as damaging to the régime’s reputation as the documentary.